Dr. Michael Hochman, a researcher at the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School, has found that news articles often fail to report pharmaceutical company funding, and frequently refer to medications by their brand names, both potential sources of bias.
"An increasingly recognized source of commercial bias in medical research is the funding of studies by companies with a financial interest in the results," write the study authors.
The researchers point out that very less is known about how frequently news articles report the funding sources of the medical research, or how frequently news articles use brand medication names instead of generic names.
Hochman and his colleagues reviewed U.S. news articles from newspaper and online sources about pharmaceutical-funded medication studies to determine how frequently and prominently they indicate the funding source and how often they refer to medications by their brand vs. generic names.
The studies were published in five major general medical journals - namely JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Archives of Internal Medicine and the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The team also surveyed editors at the 100 most widely circulated newspapers in the U.S. about their publications' practices on the reporting of company funding and the use of generic medication names.
Hochman said that there were 306 news articles - 175 from newspapers and 131 from online sources - that were about company-funded medication studies, and the funding sources were not reported in 42 percent of them.
There was no significant difference in non-reporting rates between articles obtained from newspaper and online sources.
Among the articles, 277 concerned medications with both generic and brand names, and among those 277 articles, 38 percent used only brand names and 67 percent used brand names in at least half of the medication references.
During the survey, 88 percent of the news editors said that his/her publication often or always reported company funding in articles about medical research, and that 77 percent reported that they often or always referred to medications by the generic names in articles about medical research.
Three percent of editors indicated that their publication had a written policy that company funding should be reported in articles about medical research, while the editor at two percent of newspapers responded that his/her publication had a written policy that medications should be referred to predominantly by their generic names.
However, the editors' perceptions diverged from their publications' actual performances.
The researchers analysed a total of 104 newspaper articles from publications for which editors reported always identifying company funding, and of them, 45 percent failed to cite company funding.
A total of 75 newspaper articles were analysed from publications for which the editors reported always using generic names, and of them, 76 percent used brand names in at least half of the medication references.
"Our findings raise several concerns. For patients and physicians to evaluate new research findings, it is important that they know how the research was funded so they can assess whether commercial biases may have affected the results. Additionally, the use of generic medication names by the news media is preferable so that physicians and patients learn to refer to medications by their generic names, a practice that is likely to reduce medication errors and may decrease unnecessary health care costs," the authors write.